Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best of '06, Pt. 4

5. Sean Lennon – Friendly Fire

Living up to his pedigree will probably never happen for Sean Lennon. Nor should it; his father was arguably the most important songwriter of the 20th century. What is so refreshing about Sean is that he moves on as if it doesn’t matter who his parents are – he is his own man (a man who happens to write really good songs and may be one of the best arrangers in pop music). This album is a complete turnaround from the analog synth/bossa nova/fuzz bass of his debut album; instead we get a refined pop album, with strings, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies at the forefront. In fact, it is almost reminiscent of another 2nd generation singer/songwriter, Rufus Wainwright. Lennon’s nasal voice floats above many of these recordings with a breathiness that adds to the sublimity of the arrangements. And then, all of a sudden, you get some weird stuff thrown in to remind you that his mom is probably the best known avant-garde multimedia artist of all time and that he’s logged time playing with Cibo Matto and John Zorn.

My only gripe about this record is that it took so long to come out – only two albums in eight years. In that way, and in only that way, I wish he were more like his father. Standout track: “On Again Off Again”

4. Frank Black – Fast Man Raider Man

The double album – gluttony or glory? Use Your Illusion or the White Album? London Calling or The Wall? Depending if you are stupid or not, you may not know which 2 of those double albums are glorious. Typically, I am a fan of the double album, because I am not a fan of songs being locked in a vault somewhere – if it is recorded, if the fidelity is good and it doesn’t completely blow, put it out. However, with the advent of the internet, I see the information superhighway as the perfect place for what used to be thought of as filler or leftovers – which means that in the 21st century, the double album might be dead. Frank Black is my favorite living songwriter, and I think probably the only artist who I generally don’t doubt when picking up their new album. However, this double record follows his weakest album of his career, 2005’s Honeycomb. And it featured many of the same players and the same producer who destroyed many a good song last time out. So was I bummed out by the album? Not really.

The first disc of the album was by and large arranged by one of the great unsung musicians of today, Lyle Workman, and featured some great stuff, most especially a relatively uniform sound. Despite tackling an old Scottish standard (“Dirty Old Town”), a hazy drunk dreamscape (“Dog Sleep”), and a ballad about driving across country (“Seven Days”), the disc sounds cohesive. Disc two on the other hand is a hodgepodge of sessions, from different years and different cities that sounds just like that. The most egregious inclusions are the leftovers from Honeycomb, which sound as flat and lifeless as most of that album, mixed in with some new songs that show real spunk. So, disc two is far more of a typical double album ebb and flow feeling.

What does this all mean? It means that the songs are top notch, for the most part, the production/arrangement on disc 1 is pretty stellar, and that disc 2 is hit or miss. But, in the grand scheme of things, the 15 track album I’d have released may have be the best thing released in 2006, but the dead weight weighs it down quite a bit. Standout track: Disc 1: “Dog Sleep,” Disc 2: “It’s Just Not Your Moment”

Monday, January 08, 2007

Best of '06, Pt. 3

9. Nathan Johnson – Brick: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

This record might be the most guttural purchase of my life. It came from within me and had nothing to do with my brain. As I was sitting in the Arclight Theatre in Los Angeles watching BRICK on the screen, I just needed to have the soundtrack in my hands. As I walked out of the theatre, I stopped at world famous Amoeba Records and bought it on the spot. Many things caused that physical response to the music I was hearing – first and foremost, as a score, it perfectly mirrored the action on the screen. Secondly, the instrumentation was fantastic – the painfully underused clarinet, lots of percussion, all of it sounding like someone had stumbled upon a treasure trove of under appreciated instruments all wanting a home. The music was classical-inspired, but certainly borrowed liberally from the jazz and indie rock traditions. The only real criticism of the record that I can drum up is that it works best with the images – which is exactly what it is supposed to do. It just doesn’t make it the ideal soundtrack to anything other than what it was intended for, so it finds less time in my CD player than inferior music. Standout Track: “Kara’s Theme (The Drama Vamp)”

8. Brightblack Morning Light – Brightblack Morning Light

I mentioned earlier how eMusic has greatly influenced my listening habits this year – this record is prime example of that. I read a few positive reviews of BML, and decided to take a chance. What is so great about this album is the fact that it feels like one long exhale – it just flows out of the band naturally. Swampy, drawn out, bluesy grooves with lots of reverb make it the perfect 90 degrees in a sticky t-shirt stuck indoors record, but it is also a bit more than that. It is dance music for those of us who hate to dance – it has a groove, but rarely a strong beat. You can move, but you don’t have to. It is also, according to every review sans this one, a great record to smoke weed to. As I have never gotten high, I wouldn’t know, but hey, if that’s your bag, then you may love this record like you love Fu Manchu and Kyuss. But for me, it is the sound of humidity – but for once, that is a pleasant sensation. Standout Track: “Star Blanket Morning Child”

7. Robert Pollard – From a Compound Eye

One of Bob’s 6 full length records released in 2006 (I shit you not), this features, in his own words, “the 4 P’s – Pop, Punk, Psych and Prog.” A good ol’ double vinyl release, FACE (a happy coincidence I guess, but the record cover is just Bob’s face, so who knows?) feels like Pollard’s manifesto – this is what I am about – lo-fi in parts, catchy as hell, sprawling, in need of an editor, and a lot of fun. Anyone who has ever seen Bob either solo or in his days in Guided By Voices (I’ve had each pleasure) knows that this guy can drink you and most of your town under the table, and I still fathom at the concept that this guy who drinks so much can be so productive – that is, if he drinks as much off stage as on. Regardless, this is an album that speaks volumes about Pollard’s work ethic – and let’s hope that he continues his rigorous release schedule – because there is nothing missing in modern music today more than bands releasing a record or more a year. Few artists can boast even one a year (look later in this list for an example of one), let alone as many as Bob does. Do I buy them all? No,. But like looking in the window of a pizza parlor, there may be 15 delicious pies ready for consumption, but you only need one today; I only have two of Pollard’s 2006 records and for now, I’m full. But someday perhaps I’ll want to sample another pie. PS – “Gold” totally rips off a song my band in college used to play. Standout Track: “Field Jacket Blues”

6. Thom Yorke – The Eraser

Radiohead fans are stupid. There, I’ve said it. Why? Because they shat all over this record for ‘not being Radiohead-y enough.’ Well, perhaps that is why it is a solo album? Thom Yorke didn’t reinvent the wheel with this album, but he simple made a solid album. A glitchy, laptop record. From the intriguing artwork, to the A Scanner Darkly closing music “Black Swan” to songs about the environment, this is a wholly different Yorke than we’ve seen before, but the hints have always been there. This is also a great argument for why Yorke needs Radiohead – a career of this may not be as satisfying, but as a now and then type deal, I’ll take it any day. Standout Track: “Black Swan”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Best of '06, Pt. 2

12. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love Records)

A perfect ‘cup of coffee in the office’ record, occasional Postal Service vocalist/full-time front woman for Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis made an early bid for my favorite album of the year on the sheer beauty of her voice and the instrumentation on this record. In fact, it would be significantly higher up my list if the lyrics weren’t so blah – I just don’t see Lewis as a great lyricist. Case in point: “Its like cleaning the ocean/what are you going to do, drain it?” However, the quartet she leads with M. Ward, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/Postal Service) through the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care” (perhaps my favorite guilty pleasure ever put to wax) is worth a spot on this list alone. The songs and the emotions behind them are strong, even with the lyrics aren't. Standout Track: "Rise Up With Fists"

11. Ray Davies – Other People’s Lives (V2 Records)

Another early-year favorite of mine, Ray Davies delivers exactly what you’d expect from the sexagenarian Kinks leader – sardonic lyrics, strong melodies, and a few surprises. The surprises? A healthy dose of female backing vocals, the lack of age-appropriate mellowing and the realization that he may still be in the top 5 songwriters alive. The downfall of this album is that there isn’t quite enough variety and, as his live show will attest, Davies can still rock, just not on disc apparently. Here’s to hoping his release schedule from now on is swifter than the decade we had to wait for this one. Standout Track: "The Tourist"

10. Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Columbia Records)

Another '60s holdover who made a damn fine album this year is Bob Dylan. A lot has been said about this album already – you all know he name drops Alicia Keys, plays with a pre-rock and roll feel, and produced the album under the pseudonym Jack Frost. What you may not know? “Spirit on the Water” has perhaps Dylan’s best melody ever, the lead guitar on “Beyond the Horizon” sounds drunk, “Ain’t Talkin’” is his darkest in years and the album flies by it is so enjoyable. If you have any doubts about that gravely voice letting you down again, take the leap – it is well worth it. So what if he aped the cover from a Luna record? Standout Track: "Spirit on the Water"